Tuesday, March 10, 2015

So near, yet so far

Mamallapuram Shore Temple

It must have been in their blood.  The urge to create something everlasting, to make the world remember their name forever.  In order for them to have this urge, they must have been passionate about something in their life, and must have devoted a major portion, if not their entire life, in pursuit of that passion.  It turns out in the end, that, though the creators themselves may not have been all that powerful or popular, their creation has lived beyond their times to become so popular as to proclaim their name as long as they exist.  If you are confused at what I am coming to say, let me take you on a short ride to Mamallapuram, more popularly known as Mahabalipuram, just about 60 km from Chennai.  Yes, I am referring to the kings of the Pallava dynasty, who have created masterpieces out of very hard rock and left them to be admired for eternity. 

Research into the history of sculpture and architecture at Mamallapuram reveals that the early Pallavas started experimenting their skills and art at places like Mamandur, where some of their work still exists as proof.  Later on they moved towards this place Mamallapuram, which seems to have been a port city at that time.  Abundance of rocks and hillocks must have tempted them to stay put here for some time, at least three or four generations, to create some of the wonderful stone art ever to be seen in the world.  Each one was – rather, is, for they still stand challenging time itself – a unique creation, containing excellent work of sculpture.

Unlike building block by block – for the term building itself implies creating step by step by adding material to the form, these temples have been cut out of huge boulders of solid granite rock, which is a very hard material to work on.  Imagine the creative mind of whoever envisioned the hidden marvels in these rocks.  The five rathas, or chariots, are each modeled in a different style.  All they had as tools with them at that time were just chisels and hammers, of different sizes, that is all.  With these, they have worked on the hardest of rocks to form sculptures of unimaginable beauty, charm, poise and expression that are still visible despite the ravages of time and weather on this harsh tropical coast.  The other monuments such as the cave temples, all exhibit a vast variety of art in the making, as if the entire place was a university for sculpture.  The placement of the elephant just near the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha, modeled on the Gajabrshta style vimana, lends credence to this belief.

For example, take pillars.  The earliest pillars were just square posts.  Then came some improvement, with a base at the bottom and also at the top.  Then came embellishments, with curved designs etc., on the base at the bottom and top.  The square was modified to an octagon or cylindrical shape.  As their expertise grew, the base at the bottom was transformed to a sitting lion or yaali.  From a sitting position, the lion or yaali was made to stand in a rearing pose.  You can see all these developments in the various pillars of various structures in Mamallapuram, making us wonder whether the place itself was a demonstration workshop for sculptors in the making! Even though of elephantine proportions, woudn't it be apt to call it MOUSE – Mamalla Open-air University of Sculpture Excellence!

The Great Penance, an open air bas relief which is the main tourist attraction here, is a marvel of marvels, and a unique one.  Such type of open air bas relief sculpture has never been attempted anywhere in the world, either before or after the Pallavas.  And the amount of variety they have brought into this rock canvas is mind boggling.  Somebody aptly mentioned that the Pallavas have painted sculpture on this rock canvas. 

The Tiger Cave is another live demonstration of how they must have gone about their work.  You can see a huge half-buried rock, on which attempts, some still left unfinished, have been made to convert it into a usable stage – either for artistes to perform, or for the king to sit at a height and watch wrestlers in action or other performances in the open sand below.  The Atiranachanda Mandapam on the South side of the Tiger Cave complex has a beautiful cave temple that has inscriptions in different languages on both sides of the cave, from which historians are able to identify the names and date these structures.

The most beautiful shore temple, is a structural architecture built carefully by the Pallavas with an intent to fix it at the very edge of the shoreline.  There are two temple, one facing east and one facing west, with a very small recess between the two.  The sculptures, being at the very edge, have been washed by water and salty air and have eroded over a period of time, but still, from even a short distance, they still are a magnificent sight to behold.  How proud the creators must have been on completing this wonderful temple!

There are four forms of sculpture in stone – monolithic, that is a sculpture made out of a single piece of rock, mostly from top-downwards; rock-cut cave, which is scooping out rock from, say, the base of a huge hillock to form a cave like structure but complete with artistic embellishments; structural sculpture, which is building a structure block-by-block from the foundation upwards, and bas-relief, which is removing a portion of the open rock to make the unremoved portion into a beautiful sculpture.  Mamallapuram is said to be the only place in the whole world to boast of having all the four types in one place, may be something that the creators wanted to be known and remembered for!

While historical evidence suggests that Mamallapuram was bustling with activity from 7th century and the sculptures here were done under the supervision of kings over three generations starting from Mahendravarman, there is no clue as to why almost all of the work here is incomplete in some respect.  It is still a mystery that the entire area seems to have been vacated at one particular moment in history, left to be buried in sand only to be re-discovered by visiting Europeans several centuries later.  While history traces the continuance of Pallava kingdom and their excellence in sculpting in temple arts of Kanchipuram and around, the reason for the sudden eviction from Mamallapuram still baffles archaeologists and historians.

May be, the abundance of rocks and a comfortable breezy coast could have favoured this place to be used as a training ground for sculptors.  In seeking an answer to the semi-finished state of the sculptural splendor, another thought that runs in my mind is that this was a practical examination place for selecting good sculptors, and they wantonly left space for testing future recruits! Just a thought, as a plausible reason for the mystery of several unfinished work we find here. The sculptors who passed out were possibly sent to work on the Kailasanadhar temple in Kanchipuram and other temples in various other places where we find proof of the splendor of Pallava sculpture.

However, it is heartening to note that Mamallapuram is again bustling with activity, now of various types not limited to sculpture.  It is drawing huge number of tourists from all over the world, and the attendant industries catering to the visitors are thriving here.  Vendors and gypsies make hayday during holidays and peak season.  Modern day sculptors bring stones from other places and work on them to create both conventional and contemporary pieces of art, many of which are even exported to countries near and far.  The government has established a college of sculpture and art, where both descendants of traditional craftsmen and those who are evincing interest in sculpting are taught the skills and nuances of the art.  A positive development I noted is the establishment of a 7-D theatre by Dr. Bharathi, showing a well-made 20 minute presentation on Mamallapuram.  Though the entrance ticket is a little steep for the common man visiting Mallai, such ventures need encouragement. Discounted rates are offered for students and groups - all you have to do is talk to the person in charge of sales counter and prove your credentials.

Coming to the caption, Mamallapuram, though so near (in proximity) is yet so far (in time) that it generates so many thoughts and emotions whenever you make a visit there.  Also, though Mamallapuram is a world famous heritage site just about 60 km from Chennai, how often do we get to go there?  Twice or thrice at the most in one's life time?  Hence the caption.

I am reminded of the Purananooru poem 'undaalamma' which says that the world exists because .. there are men who would give their life for doing things that would give them eternal fame and honour.  The Pallava kings, particularly Mahendravarman, his son Narasimhavarman and his son Parameswaravarman, belong to this category.  Because such men were, the world continues to be.  We are all just passengers in the journey of time admiring the historic scenes passing through the window.


Anonymous Devaki said...

Mahabalipuram is fantastic. Though delayed comment, i enjoyed reading and the photography is excellent. .... I really envy you...

June 2, 2015 at 2:24 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home